Guns ‘n Threats

“They’re comin’ for yer guns, no doubt about it.”

“Just bury your guns for two years, and then you’ll get ‘em back when we flip the statehouse.”

“Guns don’t kill people. People do.”

“We’re gonna get to the point where you can’t even give a gun to a child.”

“We are not going to be sheep led to slaughter.”

“Don’t let liberal elites tell you what to do.”

“More guns, less crime.”

These are a few quotes from the December 8th (2019) townhall meeting held by Virginia 24th District Delegate Ronnie Campbell (*described in this post). The meeting served as regional Republican Party preparation for the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting to decide on a local Second Amendment, or “gun sanctuary” resolution.  The following night, the Board of Supervisors meeting, ostensibly scheduled to vote on the resolution, turned into a Trump rally. Here is a link to the Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors site.  As yet, neither the December 9th minutes nor the resolution itself has been posted.

As you might have seen in my previous post about the townhall meeting, Delegate Ronnie Campbell introduced the gun question by first launching three major GOP talking points—voters’ rights (“Why should everybody get to vote?”), abortion (who gets to decide?), and “you can’t trust the left-wing media” (adding, “Citizens are not well informed.” I’ll say!).  As he introduced these three points, Campbell said, “These are not Republican talking points or anything like that” (um, Ronnie, that’s exactly what these are).  He has been well-trained in Trumpism—appeal to the one-issue voters by making sure to bundle their one issue into the whole package, never distinguishing between or among issues, and never providing actual data or facts.  You can get a crowd good and riled up in this way, which is why the United States is in chaos three years into this tyrant’s so-called presidency.

I attended the December 9th Board of Supervisors meeting with about twenty people opposed to the gun sanctuary proposal and 1180 in favor. We twenty knew the fix was in, but we believed it was worthwhile to show up and have resistance heard.  With several hundred students doing evening activities and competitions at the high school and a host of heavily armed deputy sheriffs all over the school, the atmosphere was tense. I was not surprised by the numbers, nor was I surprised by how this board of our rural county ran the meeting like a Trump rally.  They told people from Lexington City that they would not be allowed to speak until everyone from Rockbridge County had spoken.  This would make sense, maybe, if Lexington City residents did not have (and vote for) the same sheriff as the Rockbridge County residents, did not send their children to the only public high school in our area (Rockbridge County High), and did not work and play in Rockbridge County.  But we do do all of these things, and therefore our voices should also matter.

In addition, the Board allowed two featured speakers before they opened the discussion: Virginia House of Delegates Ronnie Campbell and resident of Rockingham County (one hour north of us) Jennifer Brown, who serves as a regional committee chair for the Republican Party.  Campbell did his assigned part by giving a Trump stump speech, ending his remarks with a loud, cheerleader-like “Vote for Trump!”  Even though she is not a resident of Rockbridge County, Brown was able to deliver her comments as she had at the townhall the day before—as GOP talking points and with no data, no statistics, no real information.  The Board of Supervisors set the tone from the get-go, telling us Dems in the front two rows how this would go.  The set-up was a big middle finger to anyone interested in discussing common sense gun reform and to the reality of a state turned blue.

Of the seventy or so people who spoke in favor of Rockbridge County being a gun sanctuary (although, of course, the resolution itself is quite limited), only four were women.  Three of the four women acceded to the public stage by claiming themselves Christians, wives, and mothers.  This declaration seemed to give them permission to speak. The 66 men who spoke in favor of the resolution performed various combinations of the following: citing their military service; talking about their families’ longstanding ties to Virginia; creating an us/them dynamic, especially regarding northerners and migrants; disparaging lawmakers in Richmond; criticizing “liberal elites”; mentioning, sometimes in one fell swoop and always without historical or political nuance, the Holocaust, socialism, and communism; claiming what God owes them. Some of those who spoke promoted their books and websites; others promoted their shooting ranges. Of all those who spoke in favor of the resolution, one single person advocated for a real conversation between the two sides to see if some form of compromise was possible.

Board Chair Jay Lewis (whose actions from the previous weekend are described here) had told the audience that no waving of signs, heckling, or general disruptions would be allowed.  Second Amendment signs were waved throughout the almost-three-hour session.  When some of us 20 in opposition asked for the Board to follow its own established rules, we were shouted down, being called the “b” word and the “c” word and being told to shut up.  Lewis chided us, but not the others, who received a complicit half-smile and nod.  The intention was to establish a threatening atmosphere, and it worked.  These are the moments at which the Second Amendment folks try to use guns and/or the threat of guns to limit First Amendment rights (especially freedom of speech and freedom of assembly). (*See this related Gender Shrapnel post about these dynamics in Charlottesville, 2017.)  Not only did the Board of Supervisors not have our backs, but they actively made our backs a target for Second Amendment backlash.

While I sat in the school auditorium, I received a text from a friend containing a Facebook post from the regional GOP chair.  The regional chair (who at that point was seated five seats away from me) had posted this:

“FB page: Jennifer M Brown
8 hrs ·
Fellow Rockbridge Patriots! There is a woman who is a member of 50 Ways Rockbridge, which is a progressive group of rabid agitators. She has personally threatened a fellow brother of our cause, and I take personal exception to anyone who threatens one of our own. She also is a professor who teaches our youth, which is especially concerning.
She attended last night’s 2A info meeting and made sure to record and take notes what was said. She has reported back to her group and they are planning to be present at tonight’s Board meeting with an agenda.
Please be respectful in your comments and do not engage in any communication with this group. They want us to respond so the media narrative can make our cause look fringe.
We are NOT gun activists. We ARE Constitutional Patriots! #2AStrong”

This spokesperson for the Republican Party said the following that was true: I am a woman. I am a member of 50 Ways Rockbridge. I am a professor. I take notes.  The rest of her statement seems to come from a second-rate Russian bot-farm, but, of course, it is designed only to spread lies and shut people down.  If I wanted, I could establish a case for libel here, especially since this person is impugning my professional reputation. I invite her and anyone to talk to me about my teaching and scholarly accomplishments and about the careful and constructive ways in which 50 Ways Rockbridge has worked in this community.  Bring it. But do not threaten me or silence me.  (*See this NPR report and this Washington Post piece about Virginia delegates receiving death threats.)

It bears mentioning that I reported this libelous post that very night to our newly elected sheriff, telling him that I felt unsafe (1180 to 20; violent name-calling; targeted trolling).  He tried to reassure me by pointing to all the officers with guns.  “Q….E…..D,” I thought.  Armed officers do not make me feel safer. Guns do not make me feel safer.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, my field of expertise is cultural studies.  For cultural studies, you learn as much as you can about the history, demographics, legacies, languages, cultural production, and cultural practices of a specific region and apply that knowledge to an analysis of the audio, visual, and written texts produced by people from the area.  I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, for 23 years and have lived in the state of Virginia for 27—half my life, more years than I lived in my hometown of Philadelphia.  The lilt and twang of the local accent no longer strike my ears as different or odd.  The use of “sucker” for “lollipop” or “buggy” for “shopping cart” sounds completely normal.  I know the range of typical last names in the area, from the Clarks to the Zollmans and the Mutispaughs to the Nicelys.  I have ridden my bicycle through many miles of this large county and have seen the mansions and the no longer mobilized trailers with old sweaters stuffed into windows to keep out the rain.  I have been to many of the churches, despite my atheism. This is home to me, even if others see me as a Yankee, a damned Yankee (the kind that doesn’t leave), or a carpetbagger.  I have watched this community grow and change over these years, and I have tried to do so as both participant and observer, understanding my outsider status but also learning how you become a part of a community over time.

Cultural studies practices tell you to understand your own baggage before analyzing that of others.  In a way, I think this practice is the greatest strength and weakness of the Democratic Party.  The party’s hallmarks should be (and sometimes have been): recognition, celebration, and amplification of a diversity of peoples and voices; sincere and well-versed people advocating for competing ideas and duking them out; adherence to executive, judicial, and legislative norms as laid out in founding documents; examination of depth and nuance.  While the Democratic Party falls far short of these ideals, it at least still seems in dialogue with them. Over these past three years, I have asked repeated times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog: To what extent must we politicize kindness and humanity?  If calm, careful, thoughtful, and generous approaches to problem-solving are now old-fashioned, passé, done, as I fear they are, then how do you advocate for what is right in a measured way without always losing to an entrenched, mendacious, narcissistic, racist, sexist, homophobic—an unjust—other side?  Does civility mean that the powerful control the process and ask others to accept it quietly, with no fuss?

Local friends have often talked about hunting—when the season starts; when it ends; what you can hunt; how you hunt it; when you use a bow or a gun; how you train the kids to hunt; how you prepare the meat you’ve hunted; what it means to be in nature in this way.  I have been curious about these issues, which, of all the cultural elements of our region, are the most distant from my own upbringing.  As someone who for years cycled through the hills, mills, hollows, and valleys of this beautiful county, I have seen hunters and signs for hunting.  I have laughed at the image of the yuppy cyclist commingling with the camouflaged hunter, thinking there has to be some kind of cosmic cultural fusion joining us in nature.

I hope I am a careful thinker, and I definitely am an ardent talker.  Don’t let the impassioned expression of my ideas trick you.  I earn my opinions, and I want others to do the same.  If I thought the Second Amendment extremists (which I would define as those who believe the Second Amendment to be more important than all other amendments) were also careful thinkers and also invited reasoned debate, I would want to engage in real conversation with them.  I want to see Republicans take a cultural studies approach to their discussion of common sense gun reform and educational reform in Virginia.  Guns do kill people.  Virginia’s, and the United States’, continuing legacy of violence must be addressed.

The December 8th townhall meeting allowed me to think through the proposed legislation for the Virginia General Assembly session—specifically Senate Bills 16, 18, 51, and 64. (*See this link for all legislation related to weapons.)  The GOP talking points, distributed by 6th District Republican Committee Chairperson Jennifer Brown, read more like rally propaganda than clear education on the actual legislation proposed.  The document, designed only to whip up a crowd, not to provide information, parse ideas, and ask for reasoned feedback, included no links to actual proposals, no direct text, no grounded reality of the issues.  This is propaganda, not education or democracy, and this is the problem with regional, state, and national politics in the United States.

Why do we want to control people, rather than allow them the information they need to make their own decisions?  Isn’t that real liberty, real freedom?  For example, the Rockingham (VA) GOP Committee states in their talking points: “School shootings are relatively rare despite recent media narrative reporting and Democrat messages that would have you believe otherwise.”  They include no data, no links to reputable sources, no verifiable information. (*See this post and this one for actual statistics on school shootings and gun violence. *Also see the Moms Demand Action site and Everytown for Gun Safety.)  I do not want to mislead people.  Why would I?  I just want to share real data, real statistics, on a real problem that has deeply affected the state of Virginia and the United States.  I want a little bit of book learning to go a long way.

What I am about to say will strike you as naïve, and it is.  After all these years here, and after all the thinking about culture and roots and belonging and not belonging, I somehow did not anticipate the profound ways in which Republican talking points would distill themselves, like so much moonshine on a late summer’s day, into just guns.  Guns as power, guns as a God-given right, guns as a community of men and the supporting cast of women, guns as military pride, guns as sacrifice, guns as “sacred honor,” guns as nation, guns as Christianity. Guns as, like you see on the t-shirt in the photo included here (from the December 9, 2019, Rockbridge County Board of Supervisors meeting), Family-Faith-Friends-Flag-Firearms–“Five Things You Don’t Mess With.”  Guns as an old United States that should be able, through education, to embrace a new United States built on community, care, and justice.

Dear Younger Generations

Dear Younger Generations,

I am sorry.  I am so sorry.

I apologize for what the generation before mine and my generation have handed over to you.  We have created plastic bag and bottle islands.  We have foregrounded playgrounds for the rich over clean water and green spaces for all.  We have poisoned food production in favor of profit.  We have polarized the differences between and among our world religions, instead of finding commonalities, recognizing other types of belief systems, and working towards defining the common good.

Instead of recognizing elements of healthy debate along a pluralistic political spectrum, we have become hyperpartisan, unable to compromise, and gridlocked.  (I do not and cannot distribute blame equally here, but the result remains the same.)  We have built up the military-industrial complex to an untenable level, lining the pockets of a select few as we build military machines whose primary purpose is to kill.  We have forgotten how and why to talk about peace, which has become a quaint term reserved for the overly sentimental and the hippy. (*See this excellent piece by Jorge Gaupp on constructive conceptualizations of peace.)

We have allowed tyrants to prevail in too many countries.  These power-hungry dictators stride through their days with narcissism on their sleeves, Machiavellianism in their pockets, and knives on the budgets that serve the public good.  They promote those who look like them and brook no dissent from other parties, the press, the common people, even their own party.  They don’t study the issues.  They slash them.  They are actively constructing a world of destruction, and, despite outstanding and sincere resistance efforts, we are letting them do it.  In fact, the national dictators are giving birth and greater power to a whole host of state and local dictators, who seem to have been waiting for this moment.

I am so sorry.

Every single day, despite the resistance (for which I am eternally grateful), we are allowing groups of people to feel less than human.  We are forcing people who already struggle to be seen and heard to feel vulnerable—vulnerable in the writing and enacting of laws, vulnerable in the workplace, vulnerable at a party, in the street, in a bathroom.  Those who are already exhausted from the daily struggles for civil rights—basic human rights—are called upon to resist, again.  Aren’t we all supposed to have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

(http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39375228)

I’m sorry, too, that the right to basic healthcare has experienced such peril.  The party in power has adopted such an over-the-top white, male supremacist approach that it forgets that all of us, every single last one of us, arrived in this world because a woman gave birth to us.  I believe that means that all of us rely upon maternity care.  How have we let even this basic tenet of healthcare be called into question?  (*See this Mother Jones piece, with photographs of all older white men determining the future of women’s health.  See also this Fortune Magazine piece on the AHCA being a referendum on women’s health care.)  The party in power is so intent upon restricting women’s reproductive rights that it seems even to want to restrict healthy reproduction.  That is more than cutting your nose off to spite your face.  It is a policy rooted in fear and vindictiveness, which is no way to run a government.

Profound kindness and generosity still define parts of our world—across the political aisle, national borders, community organizations, and generations.  Nevertheless, in many ways, your generation has become more thoughtful than mine.  You know how to recognize and call out bullying, you grapple less with non-binary identifications, and you make long-lasting friendships through the social media that have shaped your existence.  I see you harnessing this open-mindedness and desire for connection to think broadly about the social, economic, and political issues of our world.  I’d like to believe that you are aware of racial injustice and more prepared to combat it than my generation has been.  I imagine you fed up with limited gender messaging and creative in your approach to reshape it.

I have seen many of your generation(s) advocate for equal rights, study House and Senate bills to understand the pros and cons of proposed legislation, and state your positions clearly.  I have seen the plays you write and perform in, listened to the music you create, and heard the conversations you have. Many of you are thoughtful, responsible citizens who will run for office and help to assert the priorities of your generation.  Your voices and actions are complementing those of my generation and the one before me and, in some instances, are leading the way.  Thank you.

As I conclude this post, I realize that the piece echoes in prose form what this poem attempts–to recognize, apologize, and seek change.